Film and lit crit about disability

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Asperger's, or lack of same, on TV
autistic spectrum beauty
rainbow_goddess wrote in crip_crit
There are many TV characters who people suspect of having Asperger's Syndrome -- Maura Isles in Rizzoli and Isles; Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds; Dr. Brennan in Bones; Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. Yet even when they show all the signs, none of them is identified as actually having Asperger's, other than a brief throwaway line by an UNSUB on Criminal Minds that mentioned Reid as being on the autism spectrum.

The only time I can recall an adult character on primetime TV was actually identified as having Asperger's, Jerry on Boston Legal, his Asperger characteristics were exaggerated to ridiculous levels, he was turned into comic relief, and they conflated Asperger's with other conditions such as Tourettes Syndrome and implied that it is common for people with Asperger's to have a sexual fixation on objects when a girlfriend of Jerry's left him because she "fell in love with an iPhone."

I'm wondering why the characters are given all of these Asperger-like characteristics but not said to have Asperger's. Is it because writers think that all scientists are geeky/nerdy/socially awkward? Is it because if the character is suddenly identified as having AS, then the writers/producers are afraid that they won't be able to poke fun at the character anymore because "he/she has a disability"? Are they afraid that the audience won't like the character anymore? Is it just a lack of awareness -- not enough people know what Asperger's is, so they won't use the word in the show?

It really puzzles me why so many characters are given characteristics that are so obviously Asperger-like yet the producers of the show won't use the actual identification.

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I agree that it's weird, because Bones in particular shows lots of different scientists, so it's obviously not that they're writing "all nerds are like this". I believe the producers of Bones have said in interviews that they write Brennan with Asperger's, so I have no idea why they won't actually say so in the show. They could have a perfectly good Watsonian explanation for most of the characters - Isles and Brennan might be too old (and too female) to ever have got a formal diagnosis, Reid is terrified of any kind of what he sees as mental illness - but that doesn't take care of the Doylist explanation!

I was going to mention this, that they've said in interviews that Brennan has Aspergers. It's also been suggested for the character Zach Addy, which I agree with, and Lance Sweets, which I'm not sure about. Anyway, Brennan is my age, and I'm fairly sure I have friends my age who have been diagnosed with Aspergers.

The depiction of Jerry in Boston Legal really bothered me as well. It was often sympathetic, but that doesn't stop the problem that it was being played for laughs. Admittedly everything is played for laughs in that show, but the Alzheimers "mad cow" plot seemed more sensitively handled to me.

Edited at 2012-06-09 11:00 am (UTC)

I agree with Dr. Brennan and Zach Addy but not Lance Sweets.

The people my age (mid-30s) who have been diagnosed were all evaluated as adults, mostly because we were seeking answers about ourselves or having continued problems functioning at work or graduate school. Since Asperger's wasn't labeled as a diagnosis until 1994, most of us either didn't come to attention earlier or did but were labled with other things (ADHD, depression, anxiety, just weird) So for a TV character our age to have an Aspergers diagnosis, either the character themself or those around them need to believe there is a problem and seek out a professional evaluation. (Evaluations can also be hard to find and expensive, although expensive is not a barrier for either Temperance Brennan or Maura Isles, at least.)

Except for one episode I can recall where Dr. Brennan asks Dr. Sweets to help her read people better, she generally isn't written as percieving herself as having a problem

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Well, they still do that with gay characters, and especially bi characters, who remain under-represented, poorly written and so forth. But they do it less often than they used to, and they do it furtively. They are at least aware that they would be in a lot of trouble if they made parallel announcements about LGBT characters. There was quite a fuss when Rowling casually mentioned that Dumbledore was gay, for instance.

Reid is smart enough to know that Asperger's is NOT a mental illness. He might even be relieved that he doesn't have schizophrenia like his mother, as people who are autistic and people who have schizophrenia often have similar problems with social skills, etc.

Edited at 2012-06-09 07:51 pm (UTC)

I can't even remember which of my fandoms it was, but in one of them a writer said that they felt like giving a diagnosis would restrict their writing. By not using one, they didn't have to go by the book.

Yeah, I wasn't really impressed with that explanation either. Almost no one is a by the book case of neuroatypicality. All that says to me is that said writer suddenly becomes unable to write a character as full person after a diagnosis. That is troubling, to say the least.

One other character who has been identified as autistic is Gary, from Alphas.

Parker from Leverage also displays many autistic traits and needs Sophie as a mentor/mother figure, but her possible aspergers has neither been confirmed nor denied.

Parker has been formally confirmed not autistic. The writers said that her behavior is specifically stemming from her abusive/erratic childhood and not from autism.

Thanks. I'm very behind the times on Leverage thanks to stupid TV channels, so I wasn't aware of any press coverage and the like. I do know that fandom has been arguing about it for a long time though!

Edited at 2012-06-09 11:52 am (UTC)

The writers for Leverage are fairly involved in the fandom. If I remember rightly, the writers said they didn't want abuse to be considered cause for autism (and vice versa) since the original intent was about the abuse and I think that's ok reasoning.

I think one of the more thoughtful things I've heard from TV writers! They understand that non-neurotypical behaviour can stem from social causes *and* they didn't conflate disability with abuse. Respect to John Rogers and team!

Amen! I was delighted to find the above comment in my inbox - it shows that some writers care about more than just the money and are against disablism/ablism!

I agree with you. Parker is a very troubled young woman and so I can see the writer's perspective :)

Alphas is probably worth its own post, now you bring it up. It's a medium-quality show, but it does some very interesting things with disability.

Definitely. The show itself isn't fantastic (it's not up there with Leverage, for instance) but it does deal with at least two known disabilities and paints them in a very positive light. In Gary's case, it shows that his (very high functioning) autism causes him to need a routine so that he doesn't have a meltdown, but he also enforces the fact that he is his own person and can make his own decisions. As a person on the spectrum myself I think that is absolutely the message that should be coming across - that autism isn't all doom and gloom and those of us on the spectrum needn't be pitied or treated any differently to NT's.

Google gives me this article, where creators of BBT & Bones explain why their characters aren't labelled as having Aspergers. BBT's co-creator says he didn't want to have to worry about portraying Aspergers accurately, basically. Bones's creator says it's because they wanted the show to ~appeal~ to a wider audience.

It's odd that they think that giving a character Aspergers won't put people off, but labelling it as such will.

Sadly, I think they are trying to. . . get the best of both worlds, so to speak.

If they label the character, they are afraid that non-disabled people can't identify with the character. This is sort of like how EVERYONE is supposed to be able to identify with the straight, white, non-disabled male hero, but minority characters are minority role models. And also they think that a character who definitely has Aspergers/autism then needs to have every single autistic trait out there.

By not labeling, they are able to use just the parts of Aspergers they think make a good story. The characters on your list who I have seen are all portrayed as brilliant yet socially awkward. They have intense interests in their own areas of work/study. Those are considered the interesting and convenient parts of Aspergers and the writers are then free to ignore the rest. None are really given any motor manerisms that's I've noticed - Maura Isles has a somewhat unusual head movement that may count here. They mostly use conventional gestures and eye contact typically. Only Sheldon is shown as having real problems with routine changes. I haven't seen much representation of sensory over- or under-responsiveness in any of them. It's played for laughs that Maura Isles can't lie - in that she breaks out in hives when she does. Not that I want every character to have every single trait, but I do want them to have enough to meet DSM IV-TR criteria.

Sasha Alexander said in an interview that she would like it if Maura DID have Asperger's, because she thinks it would be great to have a character who is obviously intelligent and successful, good at her job, to have Asperger's to show it's not a negative thing.

I have watched Bones for only about five minutes, but the scene I watched showed Brennan turn away from her computer to talk to someone who spoke to her, and I thought, "An Aspie would keep looking at the computer while she talked," though of course not all Aspies are alike.

Matthew Gray Gubler is convinced that his character of Reid has Asperger's, and he has said that he makes an effort to play him as if he does, though I don't know how much he can do that since he doesn't write the script. Some fans have said that the reason Reid is socially awkward is not due to Asperger's but due to the fact that he grew up with a mentally ill mother who never taught him proper social behaviour, as well as being a boy genius.

Hey, I look away from my computer to talk to people. Now I often have to think, "gee, they are expecting me to look away from my computer to talk to them" before I do it and I generally don't look at them for very long, but. . .

The Temperence Brennan character mostly has the social communication symptoms, lack of picking up on social cues and talking in depth about her own areas of interest while missing what other people may be saying, thinking or feeling. I haven't picked up on any routines or repetetive behaviors or non-verbal differences with her beyond that.

I haven't seen Criminal Minds. Brennan has an abusive/neglectful backstory also, and the writing has been inconsistant on if that is the cause of her social struggles or coincidental.

I saw that Sasha Alexander interview too. It's a shame that the producers/writers don't seem to agree with her. Or maybe they will come around.

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Brennan has an abusive/neglectful backstory also, and the writing has been inconsistant on if that is the cause of her social struggles or coincidental.

I remembered another character who is thought to have Asperger's (to the extent that other characters in the show say he has it, though he's never confirmed it) -- Bobby Goren on Law and Order: CI. Goren diagnoses a suspect as having Asperger's, describes the symptoms, and his partner starts saying, "And you know he has it because you have it too?" and others say, "Hey, Goren, is that your long-lost twin?" The interesting thing there is that Goren's mother also has a mental illness, the same as Reid's mother. Both of them have mothers who have schizophrenia.

This is what I was gonna say - they want to have their cake and eat it. The nearest analogy I could think of was with LGBTesque characters. They enjoy the fan buzz of "is he? is she?" without having to do the hard work/face the backlash if they confirmed yes, s/he is.

I also find it interesting that in both Rizzoli and Isles and Bones, two leads are supposedly autistic/have Aspergers, but the characters in the books they are based on show none of those traits.

I admit I am woefully behind on Rizzoli and Isles, despite loving the books (next one is due out soon, yes!), so I can't really say how Maura acts, though the few episodes I did see she did strike me quite different than book!Maura. But with Bones, I think part of the reason they don't say it outright is, as commenters above have said, she would not have been diagnosed as a child, and I can't see her seeking out a diagnosis as an adult. She functions well in her job and role, so why would she?

And there's that show, Touch, that has an autistic child. I haven't really watched it, but my mother watched every episode and the child's autism plays a large role plot-wise.

In Touch they changed the plot at the last moment to say that the child has "emotional difficulties" and deliberately dropped the word "autism." I actually dislike the "magical autistic" stereotype that shows autistic people as having some sort of magic power or savant gift, so I have no problem with that, though I would not have watched the show anyway.

I don't watch Bones because the show is absolutely nothing like the books by Katy Reichs and I have no idea why they even bothered to call her Temperance Brennan. The Tempe (NOT "Bones") in the books splits her time between Montreal and the U.S. south, is divorced, has a young-adult daughter, has a cat named Birdie and has an on-again, off-again boyfriend in the Surete de Quebec.

In Rizzoli & Isles, the book!Maura and the book!Jane are not very much like their characters in the TV show. I haven't read many of the books, but I know that in the ones I've read, Jane is supposed to be considered unattractive, doesn't get along well with the people she works with, and is generally the target of sexual harassment at the police precinct, and Maura has barely put in an appearance in the first couple of books in the series.

My mom saw a commercial for Rizzoli and Isles and couldn't believe that Rizzoli was, well, Rizzoli, because yep, she's supposed to be unattractive. And while the later books are more Maura based (it started, iirc, with Body Double) she really didn't have much of a role. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy her having a larger role, but one of the reasons I had such a problem getting into the series at first was because the show is so different from the books I love. But after three episodes I decided that they are so different I am going to consider them only connected by the characters' names. (Also, doesn't Gabe show up later in the books? I started reading the series back in like 2002/2003, and I think it was the fourth or fifth book where he actually shows up, but it's been so long I can't remember exactly).

It's the same way I manage to watch Bones. I adore Bones, the show, but it is SO different from the books, that when it first aired I had to consider them completely different. I did find it amusing that in Spider Bones, the show is referenced.

I don't really know why shows do that. I mean, I don't expect one book to be an episode, but these two shows are so different from their book counterparts. In Pretty Little Liars, the characters were aged up (Ali died when she was twelve, in the show she died recently), and there are some details changed, but the characterization is largely the same. So why do some shows do that?

I've only caught bits and pieces of Touch, but I remember my mom commenting on it, about the portrayal of autism on the show, and was. Another show that comes to mind is Parenthood where it is explicitly stated that Max has Aspergers, and at first (been awhile since I've watched the show), it was so over-exaggerated.

I started reading the book series somewhere in the middle, and the ones that I read at that time were very Maura-centric and I thought that Jane was a very minor character. I was surprised when I went back and read The Surgeon to find that Maura wasn't in at all and Jane was the main character. Then I read The Mephisto Club and it was so downright BIZARRE that it turned me off Tess Gerritsen's books till I started watching the TV series. (Alas, Tess Gerritsen was in town at a mystery writer's conference and I didn't find out about it till it was too late to get a ticket. I'd have loved to pick her brain about that book.)

There are some characters on TV whom I definitely think have Asperger's, and then there are some whom I think have some Aspergian characteristics but maybe not enough for a diagnosis, or they're on the spectrum but at the far end, so to speak. I think Spencer definitely has Asperger's, but for Maura it's more subtle. She has some characteristics but not all of them.

I tried to watch Touch. I really did. I saw the pilot and some of the first episode. Then I worried that I would pitch something through my TV screen that would cause perminant damage.

He's the perfect example of the character who (initially at least) was stated as autistic and so had every single stereotypical trait thrown into it, with the crowning addition of being on this earth solely to teach things to neurotypical people.

TV Maura Isles and Book Maura Isles are really different, and I enjoy both. I'm working very very hard to continue enjoying both, because I tend to not do well with differences between book/TV or book/movie or stage play/movie.

Book Maura Isles seems to me to be portrayed as somewhat eccentric, viewed as "cold" mainly because she is a female pathologist and isn't very chatty at work, and deeply conflicted with her romantic situation. I don't read her as autistic at all. TV Maura Isles is more drawn as bubbly but somewhat socially oblivious and passionate about not only her profession but also hobbies including food and fashion. There's something about her speech patterns that I do read as autistic, as well as a way Sasha Alexander is playing some of her body language. She makes good eye contact, but also has a delayed double take mannerism. I keep trying to watch more closely to be better able to describe it, but picking up on visual behavioral cues is a problem of mine. . .

The show Grey's Anatomy had a character for a short time who identified herself as having Asperger's. She was played by Mary McDonnell and the character was named Dr. Virginia Dixon. She was a cardiac surgeon, brilliant because of her single minded devotion to the human heart. She even says at one point that she finds the color soothing. The only part of the storyline I had problems with came from the regular character's inability to recognise that she HAD Asperger's. These people are all supposed to be Drs yet they all thought she was just 'weird'? That didn't work for me.

Sadly it doesn't surprise me. I didn't learn anything about Aspergers at all in medical school until my senior year when I started doing electives in child development. I was pleasantly surprised when Dr. Bailey did realise what Dr. Dixon was getting at when she brought up Aspergers near the end. Although Aspergers is getting to be better and better known, doctors outside the fields of peditrics and psychiatry may not know much more about it than anyone else who watches the news or reads the papers.

I'd say I did my training at about the same time as the residents on the show except they've done such confusing things with time on the show I'm not quite sure what year it is there. But they were interns in 2005 and I was one in 2007, so I can at least we started around the same time!

She was also a kind of straight up stereotype of people with Asperger's.

It bugged me that her skill at cardio was attributed to her autism, but when other characters obsess about surgery, they're just being good surgeons.

Oh and it bugged me that she's supposed to be this awesome surgeon, with all kinds of experience, but has no idea how to cope with her autism in her job. Like, she didn't get how to talk to people who've lost a loved one, or how to get someone else to do it? And don't even get me started on how she didn't get the parent's attachment to their dying child's body (for organ donation). Seriously?

Honestly? I would "get" neither of those things. I don't "get" how to talk to someone who has lost a loved one. I wouldn't "get" the attachment to a dead body if it meant denying the chance at life to someone else.

If you're a doctor, patient care is a big part of your job, though.

Are these types of things taught in medical school? Do they deny you a medical licence if you aren't touchy-feely enough? Do they give you exams on bedside manner? Are you not allowed to be a doctor if you have problems with social interaction? Why is it so unrealistic for a doctor to be a brilliant surgeon but lousy when it comes to interpersonal skills?

It's not so bad IRL, but she's a character written by non-autistic people trying to represent an autistic person and doing so in a stereotypical, shitty fashion.

And honestly, yeah, good bedside manner is really important. Going and upsetting grieving parents is a really bad thing.

I'm not saying it's a good portrayal of an autistic person nor that bedside manner is not important. What I'm saying is that not "getting" how to talk to a grieving person or not understanding the attachment to a dead body (when the "person" is no longer there), if that attachment is possibly preventing organ donation that could save a life, is realistic for people, even those who are not autistic. It's also not unrealistic for there to be doctors who have lousy bedside manners. Otherwise we wouldn't have House.

Agreed. Having dealt with more doctors over the course of my life than anybody should reasonably have to... some of them have atrocious bedside manners.

On that particular show, she is also not the only character who has a horrible bedside manner, either. Another character who isn't autistic had similar issues learning how to actually talk to people who are grieving.

Nah, most of my doctors have been obnoxious as hell. And I have a mood disorder, so not pissing me off/making me cry really does come under adequate treatment. They still do it on a regular basis.

There are lots of doctors with lousy interpersonal skills and a lot of them are surgeons.

These days interpersonal skills are taught in medical school, although taught badly, and some medical schools are starting to fail people who aren't touchy-feely enough. Although you have to be touchy-feely their way.

At one point in my training, I ended up in a remedial class for doctor-patient skills. I was there because of problems with physical exam skills related to cerebral palsy and lack of accommodations. The other people were there because of problems with patient interaction skills. At one point we were told to physically help patients sit up (without asking first if they needed help) in a way that I would have hated a doctor ever try to use on me. When I pointed out that not all patients like to be touched or want help, I was told that "patients like it if you touch them."

I actually have good interpersonal skills in a structured encounter with a patient and family, and much lousier ones with coworkers in less structured work situations. And even lousier ones in a lot of completely unstructured social situations. But that has a lot to do with scripting and predictability and areas of special interest and. . .

At one point we were told to physically help patients sit up (without asking first if they needed help) in a way that I would have hated a doctor ever try to use on me. When I pointed out that not all patients like to be touched or want help, I was told that "patients like it if you touch them."

Whaaaaaaaaaaaat. Touch me without asking and you pull back a bloody stump.

Yeah I said that being touched unexpectedly was likely to cause me to hit someone, not in aggression but more reflexively from being startled. I was told to stop being overdramatic.

So. . . they tried to teach us touchy-feely doctor skills, but it was very one size fits all, without a lot of acknowledgement that patients may have individual preferences (or, heck, that doctors may have individual styles and that we need to learn to match them to our patients)

Yeah, the way the other characters reacted to her was exceedingly out of character, too. It's been a couple years since I've seen the episodes but ISTR that nobody really liked her. It's weird, because usually they're really good about showing positive traits along with the negative and showing things from many different sides, but they completely dropped the ball here.

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